Can you name America’s top five milk-producing states by volume? Let me help you: California, Wisconsin, New York, Idaho and Texas. Are these also the top five states for artisan cheese? Not if you ask me. Considering not only the quality of what’s produced in the state but also how enlightened its retailers are, I’ve compiled a different list. See if you agree with me. I know you won’t, so please share your own top five in the Comments section at the end of the post.
Number 5: Oregon
Rightly or wrongly, I credit Rogue Creamery with really setting the pace for this state. Rogue’s blue cheeses are consistently phenomenal, and Rogue has been an industry leader in green-business practices. The Tillamook co-op produces solid cheeses, but I’m more excited by new talents like Sarah Marcus at Briar Rose Creamery. River’s Edge makes noteworthy, if pricey, goat cheeses, and I’m impressed by the Cheddars coming out of Face Rock Creamery. You can’t talk about Oregon without mentioning Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones, whose shop, Cheese Bar, has been a persistent cheerleader for Pacific Northwest cheeses.
Number 4: New York
The nation’s number-three dairy state boasts influential producers like Old Chatham Creamery, a pioneer in American sheep cheese, and Coach Farm, equally path-making in goat cheese; passionate purists like Alan Glustoff of 5 Spoke Creamery (exceptional raw-milk farmstead cheeses); and the admirable Nettle Meadow Farm, which makes cheese, like the luscious Kunik, to fund its animal sanctuary. On the selling side, New Yorkers specialize in ideas, whether it’s American artisan-cheese advocate Anne Saxelby; supermarket innovator Wegmans; the affinage crew at Crown Finish Caves; or the brilliant marketing folks at Murray’s who partner with Kroger’s to bring good cheese to more people.
Number 3: Wisconsin
In a generation, Wisconsin has pivoted from being a commodity producer—all that nameless block Cheddar—to making branded wheels of renown. Where to start? Widmer’s and Carr Valley showed the way, and now the state’s cheese scene is on fire, with leaders like Uplands Cheese (Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve);
Hidden Springs Creamery, building a viable business on sheep cheese; Bleu Mont Dairy with its clothbound Cheddar; Marieke Penterman’s Goudas; and Roth Käse’s superb Grand Cru. Gotta mention Hook’s extra-aged Cheddars and delightful blues; the energetic LaClare Farms and tiny Landmark Creamery with its lovely sheep cheeses.
Number 2: California
It has been almost 40 years since Laura Chenel walked into Chez Panisse with her goat cheese. I can’t connect all the dots, but that event was seminal. Today, producers like Cowgirl Creamery, Bellwether Farms, Point Reyes Farmstead, Fiscalini and Cypress Grove keep retail counters supplied across the nation. Andante Dairy is a tiny phenom. Newcomers like Central Coast Creamery, Stepladder Creamery, Pennyroyal and Nicasio Valley keep the scene ever-changing in my adopted state. And of course we love and respect our veterans: Vella Dry Jack, Franklin Peluso’s Teleme and Matos St. George. Merchants like Market Hall Foods (Berkeley and Oakland), Bi Rite and Cheese Plus (San Francisco) are models of successful retailing, and distributor Tomales Bay Foods has helped so many creameries find an audience. The Golden State also boasts the only dedicated cheese school in the country with the Cheese School of San Francisco.
Number 1: Vermont
Small but mighty, Vermont leads the nation in production of awesome cheese per capita. Grafton Village and Cabot Creamery have illustrious histories and are still doing great work. But the state’s small and mid-size producers are the big story, led by visionary enterprises Vermont Creamery and Jasper Hill Farm and the impressive cheesemaking at Consider Bardwell, Parish Hill, Spring Brook Farm, Vermont Shepherd and Von Trapp Farmstead . I’m leaving too many out, but Vermont, you rock.